The Red Kite – innocent victim or secret predator?

Red kites have become an iconic part of our landscape. We now live alongside them quite closely. My family has watched a pair of red kites nesting in this willow tree next to our garden for the past three years even though there are lots of people and cars in the area. 

Before we took this picture, we heard the distinctive high pitched whistling call and spotted a red kite perched in the very top of the willow tree. 

Suddenly, it swooped down just two metres away from me. So close that I could see the beautiful feathers on it’s chest.

We love them but we know some people who are very nervous of them. There’s also uncertainty about their feeding habits: are they ecologically beneficial carrion eaters or opportunistic predators, swooping down on pets, waterfowl and even lambs?

I thought I would find out more about the history and their habit of these majestic creatures and to understand how we and they can peacefully co-exist.

 

Eda Onay, Wantage

History of red kites in England

Red kites were known in Shakespeare’s Day as clearers-up of human rubbish and food waste. They were the street scavengers of medieval London and even protected as such for a time.

But, according to local nature writer Nicola Chester, red kites became officially classed as ‘vermin’ under Henry VIII, when he brought in his quite mad, ill-informed and voracious Tudor Vermin Act in 1532, following a run of poor harvests. Otherwise known as The Preservation of Grain Act, Henry blamed almost all wildlife for eating human food and a bounty was placed on the heads of almost everything living (including kingfishers, and even hedgehogs for stealing milk from cows – which they don’t do!) Kites were blamed too – which is a shame, as they probably prevented disease by eating carrion and carcasses.

In Victorian times, the drive to protect pheasant shoots increased the wildlife killing even more. It even included nightingales – they were shot as it was thought they disturbed roosting pheasants!

Farmers and game-keepers also accused the birds of prey of stealing their animals (most common were chickens), so a bounty was placed on kites. 

By the mid-1800s red kites were targeted by hunters, poached for taxidermy and thieves who sold their eggs. 

As a result red kites became one of the rarest of our breeding birds in England. 

The re-introduction of red kites into Britain

Appalled by this continuing threat, the first kite committee was formed in 1903 by concerned individuals, who initiated the first nest protection schemes. The RSPB has been involved since 1905.

The continuing decline of the population was also causing other problems: not only did this risk their loss of genetic diversity but also the birds’ rarity made their nests a prime target for egg collectors.

The official re-introduction programme, run by the RSPB, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage, with support and sponsorship from many other bodies, started in 1989. 

This has helped to establish red kites in several areas of England and Scotland, and their range and numbers are expanding heathily. 

Red kites in England today

Consequently, the red kite’s future as a British breeding species is now much brighter with numbers rising 1026 per cent from 1995-2014. There are about 1,800 breeding pairs in Britain today – seven per cent of the total world population. Their population growth has been so successful that the number of breeding pairs is now too large for the RSPB to continue to survey them on an annual basis.

We believe that red kites are a majestic, wonderful addition to our landscape. But some people have reported frightening encounters with them.

Scavenger or secret predator?

With a wingspan of nearly two metres, red kites are the biggest bird of prey in our area and as they glide across our skies they can certainly look forboding and capable of attack. But as Nicola Chester explains, “they are surprisingly light, only weighing 1-1.2kg (2-3lbs). An average chicken weighs twice that – even a small bantam hen would weigh the same or more than the heaviest kite.  In the pecking order they are a fair way down the line. I have watched ravens first open up a carcass, then heavier, bulkier buzzards. Only then do the kites go in. 

“It is true that kites will pick up small animals and birds, if an opportunity arises – but it would be more of a swoop & grab action and they do not have a strong grip. They are described as ‘weak-footed’ so would struggle to carry anything heavier than a rat. 

“They would also be very unlikely or unable to take songbirds from a nest in a hedge for fear of damaging their big wings. They simply could not gain access to them. They are not like a sparrowhawk or a kestrel.” 

So what about the Victorian accusation that red kites prey on lambs? The Gigrin Red Kite Feeding Centre in Wales carried out an experiment to see how their red kites would react when being fed in the same field as yearling ewes (young mothers inexperienced at protecting their young). Their website reports: “At no time did the kites cause us any worries about the safety of the new born lambs. Ravens and carrion crows were of course a different matter.” 

This seems to suggest that red kites are not a threat to lambs after all (while ravens and crows are known to cause death and terrible injuries to young lambs). Nicola Chester also points out that when kites are seen in sheep fields at lambing time it is because they are scavenging the afterbirth and bottom half of the tails that drop off when the lambs tails are ‘docked’ by rubber bands. 

However a friend told me she was sitting in her garden one hot day with her dog who was playing with his squishy toy, when suddenly a red kite bombed down roughly and snatched the dog’s toy away from him, and swooped back up into the sky. The kite soon dropped the toy in a garden three doors down but my friend and her dog were quite shocked by this incident which I think shows how bold these birds can be.

So it seems that red kites can become fearless opportunists especially if there is not enough carrion for them to feed on and they’re not scared of man.  And even if they are just stealing food, rather than attacking prey, they can still be very frightening because of their size.

Living in peace with red kites

When you think about it, the fact that red kites are so bold in urban environments is not surprising. We hear of people around us in Wantage feeding kites and according to Wikipedia 5% of households feed kites, which explains why there are so many of them in urban areas. 

Maybe we should follow expert advice given from the RSPB which is that we shouldn’t attract red kites to our garden by putting out food for them – Nicola Chester agrees, “I think perhaps we shouldn’t feed them – they may become a bit of a nuisance then, but that is all.”

It’s different at places like the Gigrin Red Kite Feeding Centre in a remote part of Wales. There visitors are encouraged by the RSPB to feed red kites as it’s a safe place for people to observe and photograph them without disturbing their nests, or getting them too used to human and urban environments. 

This picture from their website was taken by a photographer in a special hide which can be booked at the centre.

Every animal has a dangerous part of them and another that is irresistibly beautiful – like the way red kites float in the sky. We shouldalways remember that they will swoop down to take food at any opportunity. When seagulls steal food it’s very annoying but not half as frightening as when a red kite does it.

How to identify a red kite

Red kites are sometimes mistaken for buzzards. They do look similar so crimes you thought were committed by red kites may have actually been buzzards that actively attack their prey.

The most visible difference between a buzzard and a kite is the tail: buzzards have a fanned tail, whereas a kite’s tail is forked (see top photo). The red kite has red wings that are tipped with black and have white patches underneath in their ‘hand’. A buzzard is rather compacted with broad wings and a short neck, and is slightly smaller than a kite. 

Click here to find more information on red kites and the differences between all birds of prey.

Please comment below if you have had any experiences with red kites.

Eda Onay
Year 11, King Alfred’s Academy, Wantage

(with support from Penny Locke)

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6 Responses

  1. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed your very informative and well written article. I will always remember driving through mid-Wales on our way to Manchester. (2005) We spotted a Red Kite soaring above us. Stopped the car, got out and stared in awe at such a beautiful, elegant creature.
    We still shout out ‘Red Kite’ when we see one: thankfully they are now widespread but still fill us with awe.
    We hope that society can live with them. Thank you for your educating piece.

  2. I enjoyed reading your information on red kites. They are a beautiful bird but have not been a wholly welcome addition to farmland as their numbers have spread. They most certainly do kill chickens and have thrown the remainders of ours on my head from the trees. (I have since learned they throw bones at the ground to break them!). Having said that they have never touched newborn lambs and, like you say, are great clearers of carrion , including afterbirth

  3. I live a mile from an Aberdeenshire training farm where Red Kites were Re-introduced 10-15 years ago. Last year when sitting out in the garden with a friend one did appear to

  4. They are extremely active around here in the Derwent valley. Have attacked my wife and dog, swooping down twice. They are taking out sparrows since the carrion is scarce. Whenever we mess with nature we mess it up.

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